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Indonesian Police Hunt Ticking Human Bombs

Six militants affiliated with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization are believed to have pledged themselves as suicide attackers.

September 28, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Police say they are hunting for as many as six Indonesian militants poised to become suicide bombers -- a calling once alien to this predominantly Muslim country but one that now poses an increasingly common threat.

The Jemaah Islamiah network, which police say is responsible for three terrorist attacks on Western targets in less than two years, continues to expand and attract new members in Indonesia despite a police crackdown and the arrest of many of its leaders, police and terrorism experts say.

New leaders are being trained to replace those who have been captured, and the group -- which can operate legally in Indonesia to raise funds and provide religious education -- presents a constant danger, they say.

The ability of Jemaah Islamiah militants to evade police was apparently demonstrated with this month's truck bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. The blast outside the embassy gate, attributed to the group, killed at least 10 people, including at least one suicide bomber. Experts are analyzing unidentified body parts in an attempt to determine how many attackers were involved.

The bomb, placed in a small truck, was so powerful that the largest piece of the vehicle recovered was a hubcap. A human torso was thrown across eight lanes of traffic into a construction site, and additional remains were found a week later on the fifth floor of a heavily damaged office building next to the embassy.

Police are investigating whether the body parts belonged to any of the six recruits who pledged to Jemaah Islamiah leaders to become suicide attackers. Authorities believe they know the identities of the six, and have taken blood samples from relatives to see whether their DNA matches that of the remains found at the bomb site. So far, the results have been negative.

They also recovered letters one of the men wrote to his parents and wife saying he would become a martyr and asking for forgiveness.

"There are many people who are ready to carry out suicide bombings," said Brig. Gen. Pranowo, director of the national police anti-terrorism unit, who uses one name. "They believe the most important thing in their lives is their religious duty to carry out jihad."

Indonesia's majority Muslim population is generally moderate, and suicide bombings were unknown here until two years ago. The Al Qaeda terrorist network, which is closely allied with Jemaah Islamiah, financed the regional group's first two attacks here and may also have helped pay for the third, police say. Al Qaeda once plotted to bring Arab suicide bombers to the region, but it no longer needs to.

This month's bombing occurred not far from the JW Marriott Hotel, where an August 2003 car bombing killed 12 people, including a suicide bomber.

The most devastating attack was the October 2002 bombing of two Bali nightclubs carried out by two suicide attackers -- one wearing a bomb vest and the second in a van packed with explosives. The explosions killed 202 people, including 88 Australians and the bombers.

Indonesians have been slow to accept that Muslims would carry out suicide bombings here, and initial reports that the Bali bombings were suicide attacks were greeted with skepticism.

Police believe the three vehicle bombs were made by the same man: Azahari bin Husin, 47, a British-educated mathematician known in his native Malaysia as "Demolition Man." He trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Police say each car bomb he makes is more powerful than the one before.

Azahari is believed to be on the run with another Malaysian militant, Noordin Mohammed Top, 33, who allegedly helped organize the three bombings. Top is considered one of Jemaah Islamiah's most effective recruiters and has attracted members to the group even while the pair has been in hiding.

Rohan Gunaratna, an associate professor at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, estimates there are about 400 active members of Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, including many who operate legally and provide support for the group's illegal activities.

With the jailing of alleged Jemaah Islamiah leader Abu Bakar Bashir and suspected operations leader Hambali, leadership of the group has been assumed by an Indonesian known as Zulkarnaen, said Gunaratna. Zulkarnaen has close ties to Al Qaeda, he said.

A Jemaah Islamiah training camp that has operated for years in a rebel-controlled area of the southern Philippines has shifted its emphasis to produce highly trained leaders, Gunaratna said. Rather than the four-month terrorism course previously offered, training now lasts 18 months. A group of 22 graduated in January, he said.

"Many of their star operatives and their significant leaders have been taken out, but still there are equally competent leaders and operatives surviving," said Gunaratna, the author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "Although those numbers are few, they are able to inflict serious damage."

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